The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U. of Kentucky shrouds a 1934 mural that depicts African American slaves

Details from a mural inside Memorial Hall at the University of Kentucky. (Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader)

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The University of Kentucky has draped white sheets over a prominent indoor mural here that features images of African American slaves hunched in a field, black musicians playing for white dancers and a Native American wielding a tomahawk near a white settler.

University President Eli Capilouto said the fresco at Memorial Hall was shrouded last week to give the community time to debate what to do about it, in light of persistent complaints from students and others that the artwork presents an offensive and romanticized view of slavery and other aspects of the state’s racial history.

Kentucky alumna Ann Rice O’Hanlon painted the mural in 1934 on plaster laid by her husband, Dick O’Hanlon. Four slaves in what appears to be a tobacco field are central to the composition of the piece, with a scene of a passenger railway placed above them. Other images from the state’s history are arrayed in a work that is 38 feet wide and 11 feet tall.

The mural “sanitizes history, painting over the stark reality of unimaginable brutality, pain, and suffering represented by the enslavement of our fellow women and men,” Capilouto said in a message to the university community. “We can no longer allow that to stand alone, unanswered by and unaccountable to, the evolutionary trajectory of our human understanding and our human spirit.”

Debate sprang up after the shrouds went up on Nov. 25, as the school headed into the Thanksgiving break. Some applauded the president’s move as a gesture of sensitivity toward those offended by the mural; others defended the artist and said they worry that Kentucky’s flagship was censoring an important work.

“Ann painted the Memorial Hall fresco in 1934, when it took some courage to declare so boldly that slaves had worked in Kentucky fields,” writer Wendell Berry — a UK alum who was related to the O’Hanlons through marriage — wrote in an op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader. “Nobody would have objected if she had left them out. The uniform clothing and posture of the workers denotes an oppressive regimentation. The railroad, its cars filled with white passengers, seems to be borne upon the slaves’ bent backs.”

Abby Wasserman, president of the board of the O’Hanlon Center for the Arts in California, which the couple founded, said she hopes the university respects all points of view. She said the artist probably did as much as possible, at the time, in her depiction of slavery. “I don’t think the college would have approved a design that showed the overt cruelty of the slave master,” Wasserman said.

The University of Kentucky, founded in 1865, did not admit African American students until 1949.

The cloaking of the mural comes as many universities nationwide are grappling with racial issues. A series of campus civil rights protests in recent weeks have brought about deep discussions about the racial climate at some of the nation’s most prominent schools, and students at the University of Missouri forced the resignation of two top university officials.

[U. Missouri president, chancellor resign over handling of racial incidents]

Last month, Princeton University agreed to consider student demands that the school review its connections to Woodrow Wilson, a former university president and U.S. president who held segregationist views. Georgetown University decided to rename two buildings that had borne the names of school presidents who organized the sale of slaves in the 19th century.

[After protests, Princeton debates Wilson’s legacy]

In August, the University of Texas decided to bump a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from a prominent outdoor location. In the same month, the College of William and Mary took down a plaque from its famous Wren building that honored Confederate soldiers and included an image of the Confederate battle flag.

[Amid national conversation about race, Yale admits ‘failing’ its minorities]

Here in Lexington on Tuesday, opinions varied about the decision to cloak the mural.

Alex Guren, a sophomore, who is white, was trying to get some work done on his laptop for a management class that was to convene in Memorial Hall in the afternoon. “All I know is they put the sheet up because it’s offensive to some people,” Guren said.

Lindsay Smith, a sophomore, who is white, said she thinks “that it’s part of history and it’s ridiculous that they’re covering it up.”

Some lauded the decision, including Rashad Bigham. The senior was one of about two dozen African American students who met recently with Capilouto to discuss areas of concern, from the mural to financial aid to faculty diversity.

“He’s been very responsive, very helpful, very open to having those discussions, wanting to make sure we all feel like we belong here,” Bigham said. “He heard us, and he understood us. We’re going to move this campus in a great direction.”

Christian Sargent, a junior, who is white, said he understands why the mural was covered and thinks it’s a good idea to consider moving it.

“At the time it was painted, I think it was just a depiction of southern life,” he said. “But as our definition of what standard southern life should be kind of evolved to include things like slavery and racism, the depiction of southern life kind of shifted away from whatever this mural is depicting.”

Frank X Walker, an English professor here who is African American, said the mural should be displayed with more context about the history of slavery in America and Kentucky. “If it’s going to remain — and I think it should — then it should be part of a whole story,” Walker said.

Anderson reported from Washington.